A Cure for Wellness Review

The reports of body horror and gross-out sequences in A Cure for Wellness have been grossly exaggerated.

This is a problem when you’re sold on a movie as a shockfest of Cronenbergs and good ol’ Lovecraftian horror. Normally I’m not one for goreporn—I’ll never go anywhere near a Saw movie—but I already wanted to see this flick and I figured if the trailers were tame, then the seriously messed-up parts had to be something truly special.

They are not. There are also very few of them.

The plot for A Cure for Wellness is a fairly standard Shadow over Insmouth clone dressed up in a modern setting: Stock-broker Lockhart is blackmailed into going to a Swedish hospital to retrieve Pembroke, the owner of said stock-broking company. It’s shady money stuff. Lockhart then breaks his leg and winds up stuck in the hospital, which is, of course, not what it seems.

While there, he learns about the mysterious past of the place, finds out some nasty stuff, and bad things happen to him.

I’ll admit to attending A Cure for Wellness in the wrong mindset. When you’re upsold on a specific thing, you go in wanting to get to that thing right away and damn the rest. However, it’s not my fault the rest is a two and a half hour slog of basic horror. When I say this is a Shadow over Insmouth clone, I’m not lying.

From the moment Lockhart arrives at the hospital, you know there’s something wrong. Everyone has that Insmouth feel.

You also know that it’s a horror movie.

Let’s take a quick step back and look at The Shining. You know going into that novel that you’re in for Stephen King horror, that the Overlook Hotel is a bad place, and that by the end, people are going to be dead. And then you start reading and forget you’re reading a book. The Torrance family are too interesting, their characters so fleshed out that you just want to learn more. When bad things start happening, you fear for them. When the supernatural elements hit, they’re compelling, and you dive deeper into the narrative.

The book owns you.

A Cure for Wellness doesn’t do that. It’s a problem of character, because at the end of the day, no one is interesting or sympathetic enough to get you to really care. Lockhart’s a complete douche, and Hanna isn’t really around enough to serve more than her plot purpose. The only reason you feel anything for either is because they don’t deserve the crap that happens to them.

Lockhart is also plot-stuck in the hospital. I can’t tell if he’s simply narrow-minded or just stupid, but there are so many red flags about the hospital that it’s intellectually offensive when he doesn’t use any of his chances (plural) to escape without Pembroke. It never even occurs to him!

The movie tries to play at psychological horror and unreliability, that maybe Lockhart’s bad experiences are all hallucinations. It’s a good idea in theory, but it’s never executed well. Does he hallucinate? Yeah. But you can always tell which ones are hallucinations and which aren’t. You also never forget that he’s in a horror movie which takes place in a creepy hospital.

I could never suspend my disbelief, is what I’m saying.

I will, however, give the film its due. The hospital is pretty great. The place is stark white and clean, and of course everyone is drinking the water like it’ll make them live forever if they believe hard enough. It’s creepy. Once you dive a floor down to the hydrotherapy machines, you’re greeted to browns and bronzes and steampunk nightmare contraptions. It’s a hidden evil, but it’s so poorly hidden that it actually becomes interesting for it.

It gets worse the further down Lockhart goes, too.

The movie is also shot really well. I like the color pallet, and I like how creepy and suffocating many of the shots are. It’s also a movie that, when it finally gets around to playing at body horror, doesn’t pull the camera away. At all.

Sadly, there are only three of these scenes. One could argue for a few more, but they never made me uncomfortable. Two at the end are shocking for the sake of it, and neither are executed well enough to warrant anything more than some eye rolls.

The score too is very interesting. There’s a ballerina doll introduced early on and a simple melody to go with her, and this melody appears over and over throughout the flick. It’s used it in all kinds of situations, from the good to the bad, and it always comes off as just a little unhinged. It certainly works.

A Cure for Wellness isn’t what I’d call a good movie, but at the end of the day, I’m not unhappy I saw it. It’s shot well, it makes the creepy hospital work, and the score is fun. There are also some nice body horror elements near the end, even if it takes two goddamned hours to get to them.

The thing is, it’s straight Lovecraftian and I want more Lovecraftian horror in my movies. This one missed the mark, but I’m happy I supported it. The hope is that one day, instead of Hollywood milking A Shadow over Insmouth, they’ll release A Color out of Space or A Shadow out of Time. That would be wonderful.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 Review

John Wick: Chapter 2 opens with a mafia gang abandoning their warehouse because they have John Wick’s car in their inventory and don’t want to be caught with it. They are then caught with it. They are never seen nor heard from again.

That folks, is what I love most about these movies: John Wick embodies the badass hero to a ridicules degree; he’s Keanu Reeves at his most Keanu Reeves, feared by everyone and plot-armor invincible, yet at the end of the movie he’s got more bruises than skin on his body. Meanwhile, I’m left going, “yeah no, this works. He’d survive three car crashes like that because he’s John Wick.”

John Wick is the goddamn Boogyman, and everyone believes it so hard that I do as well. It’s fun and exhilarating and…

And then it gets boring for the next twelve to twenty minutes. John returns to his house and is immediately solicited by someone he owes a blood oath. Apparently killing an entire gang leaves the impression that you’re back to killing for money. This oath, by the way, involves the political killing of mafia leader that John is somewhat friends with. The person guarding said mafia leader is also someone he knows and is on friendly terms with. He’s stuck though, because blood oaths have to be kept under penalty of death.

It’s a pretty standard rock-and-a-hard place conundrum, and once the hit goes somewhat south and John has a seven-million dollar bounty put on his head, it all comes off as unnecessary.

Why didn’t the movie just start there?

Honestly, I blame the world building. John Wick introduced us to the assassin world right underneath the surface of our own, and it was wonderful and compelling. The Continental is awesome. Chapter 2 goes for more and spends too much time there. It takes away the fantasy and replaces it with, well, a bit more of the same and a gearing up scene that goes on for way longer than it needs to.

Do I buy the blood oath thing? Yeah. Do I think it’s good storytelling? Not really, no.

However, I can’t really fault the movie for its world building because once the bounty is in place, everything about the assassin world becomes interesting again. It all dives back underneath the surface. We get flashes of it, from John’s interactions with strangers to the actual people trying to kill him to the old-timey receptionists handling phone calls. It reverts back to being a mystery despite how much time we spent there earlier in the movie.

But this is John Wick: Chapter 2 and that means we’re here for shooty shooty bang bang; the rest is a bonus. The good news is that the movie absolutely delivers on that front. There is no bad news.

I adore John Wick as a fighter because there’s a deep level of characterization embedded in his fighting style. He’s methodical, smart, and just damn fun to watch. Like with the first movie, it’s all about the quick double taps, because John doesn’t take any risks. If he thinks someone is going to get back up and keep fighting, he’ll put another bullet in him.

This applies to every gun he uses, of which there are many.

This characterization through fighting extends to the other assassins as well. John Wick and the assassins around them are assassins first and pragmatics second. “Friend,” is somewhere in fourth or fifth place. It adds a chilliness to everyone in the movie, and it adds a small level of tragedy too. Had things turned out just a bit different, some of these characters might have been real friends and not dressed-up, water-cooler coworkers.

For those that do go after John (and there are more that don’t than do), it feels less like a grab at money and more like a grab at myth. John is the Boogyman, and only a new Boogyman can kill the old.

The best part though is the actual cinematography. Most Marvel movies have cuts every two seconds and become messy for it, but John Wick: Chapter 2 uses long, almost slow-moving shots as John plans ahead and then kills four or five people. You can see what’s going on, and you get a real sense of scale to both his environment and his abilities. The same can be said of his hand-to-hand combat, which adds weight to the punches and kicks while also making a certain pencil scene goddamned wonderful.

The environments are great too, ranging from big and open with lots of cars to jam-packed crowds. The last one takes place at a museum exhibit that’s one part M. C. Escher painting and three parts crazy carnival mirrors. It’s way more coherent than it has any right to be.

Finally, I want to give a nod to the audio work. Maybe it’s just that I’m not used to seeing movies on the big screen with massive surround-sound speakers, but damn did this movie sound great. The car chases are audibly frantic, and the bullets pack a serious punch. Every gunshot looks stylish and just feels awesome to watch. The punches, kicks, and stabs are equally rewarding.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a great action movie that gets a bit too big for its own needs. It went from a simple revenge flick to a mafia power struggle with an expansive world, and it’s twenty minutes too long for it. Complexity is not its strong suit. Thankfully, once the first act is over, it goes back to shooty shooty bang bang, which is its strong suit.

My Top-5 Trades of 2016

Continuing on from last week’s post, here are my top-5 comic trades that came out in 2016.

5. Black Road Vol 1

Written by: Brian Wood

Art by: Garry Brown

Publisher: Image Comics

Black Road is a cold, brutal look at the spread of religion through swords and power told more through visuals than words. It’s a story of vikings, theology, and desolation, and while it is never once happy, it is always compelling and great to look at. Brian Wood is a fantastic character writer, but more than that, he knows that writing a comic means letting the artist do just as much as the storytelling as the author. Black Road is a drought of words, the kind of story where the Black Road speaks volumes while the characters trudge along in silence. Their facial expressions and posture say more than their words could. You can feel the wind blow across the pages. You can hear it howl. I don’t know where the story will go, but I’m very much along for the ride.

4. Negative Space Vol 1

Written by: Ryan K Lindsay

Art by: Owen Gieni

Publisher: Dark Horse

It’s not every day that an author can perfectly pair comedy with depression, but Ryan Lindsay managed it with Negative Space, a dark comedy with a Lovecraftian twist. The series opens up on a writer struggling to finish his suicide note. It’s a brilliant idea that continues on in a mostly-brilliant way that is, above all else, unforgettable. The middle sections of this book are somewhat strange to be sure, but it’s beginning and end are perfection: utterly bleak yet forcing you to crack a grin all the while. The way this book ends will haunt you. When it comes to the artwork, Owen Gieni is carrying just as much weight as Ryan. Depression is hard to get right without coming off as too extreme, but Owen nails it on every page. The sorrow is real, and so are the Lovecraftian monsters.

3. How to Talk to Girls at Parties

 

Written by: Neil Gaiman

Art by: Fabio Moon

Publisher: Dark Horse

It’s Neil Gaiman at his most Neil Gaiman. To say anything more would be redundant.

2. Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash

Written by: Dave McKean

Art by: Dave McKean

Published by: Dark Horse

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash might be the most important comic to come out in 2016. It’s a strange story to be sure, a surrealist mix of historical fact (artist Paul Nash as a real person and painter) and historical fiction (his paintings, and what happened to him during World War I); the surrealism makes it hard to tell one from the other. Plot points meander in and out of focus as Dave McKean treats us to an absolutely stunning array of surrealist art that seems to shift in style ever handful of pages. Nothing ever looks the same, and hell, almost nothing ever looks traditionally pretty. That’s on purpose though, and the effect it has is nothing short of profound. This is a story of one man attempting to cope with the horrors of WWI through his artwork. Pretty is not the way to cope with war. This book really has to be experienced to be believed, but it’s the kind of book everyone should experience.

1. Troll Bridge

Written by: Neil Gaiman

Art by: Colleen Doran

Publisher: Dark Horse

One of my favorite things about 2016 is that Neil Gaiman wrote us a fable. Troll Bridge is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Jack meeting a monster that wants to eat him and twisting his way by making a deal: He’ll come back when he’s older. He’ll be a better meal that way.  The rest is a character study of Jack and the bumps in his road that turn him into a cynical monster not worthy of a troll’s dinner. The rest is a hopelessly realistic portrayal of growing up and losing your childlike fantasy. The rest is about depression. The rest is about monsters and how they’re people too. The rest is, well, about life. Like all good fables, Troll Bridge has more to say about the world than it first lets on; it’s a kind of intellectual food, and it would be remiss if you didn’t take a bite.

My Top-5 Comic Series of 2016

2016 is the year I jumped out of my comic-book comfort zone. I sampled as much as I possibly could, and to me, that’s the spirit of the medium. Super heroes are what the general public see, but anyone who’s stepped foot into a comic store knows that when it comes to putting words over pictures, anything and everything is fair game.

It’s wonderful, and 2016 saw the release of many wonderful books. We had more I Hate Fairyland, more Wayward, more The Autumnlands, a new series from Jim Zub, two different Alien runs from Dark Horse, two Neil Gaiman trades, tons of scifi and fantasy from Image, a Lovecraftian crime noir miniseries featuring a talking cat, New Superman, and whatever wonderful piece of literature A.D.: After Death is turning into.

That all being said, picking my top five series and top five trades for 2016 wasn’t all that difficult. This was a good year for comics, but the best-of-the-best truly stood out more than ever. Plus, I gave myself two very strict rules to follow:

  1. No repeats from 2015
  2. The comic must have at least four issues out or completed its first arc.

This means that while A.D.: After Death is probably the best thing I read this year, it isn’t on the list. It also means I Hate Fairyland, Wayward, and The Autumnlands aren’t on here either, since those were my big favorites from 2015.

The idea is to promote new series or series with strong jumping-on points. Plus, talking about how good Wayward is at this point is just boring. I’ll be doing my top-five series in this post and my top-five trades next week.

5. Aliens: Defiance

Written by: Brain Wood

Art by: Tristan Jones, Tony Brescini, Stephen Thomson, and Dan Jackson

Publisher: Dark Horse

If you count the comic books and novels, the Alien franchise is actually jam-packed with content, and a lot of it sees the same ground being tread over and over. It’s perhaps never boring, but even I’ll admit that some of the franchise’s biggest tropes are starting to feel a bit derivative. Brian Wood seems to know this, because Aliens: Defiance is all about taking long-running tropes and expectations and shattering them. Zara isn’t your standard badass heroine, Davis isn’t your standard synthetic, and their fight against the titular Aliens isn’t your standard action romp. Everything about this series is character driven and outright lonely, because no one can hear you scream if no one is around. This coupled with a fantastic lineup of artists that know how to make great use of shadows have turned this into my favorite, non-movie Aliens series to date.

4. Glitterbomb

Written by: Jim Zub

Art by: Djibril Morissette-Phan & K. Michael Russell

Publisher: Image

In my introduction, I said that anything and everything is fair game in the realm of comic books, and Jim Zub is certainly proving that with his new series, Glitterbomb. Take one part drama and one part horror and stick both into a very dark, very strange character piece set in the worst parts of Hollywood. That’s Glitterbomb. Farrah is a down-on-her luck actress with a pig of an agent and barely enough money to pay her babysitter, and while that’s enough for a compelling story on its own, she encounters something otherworldly and…turns. It’s nail-biting horror through and through, though not because Farrah herself is scary but because she’s completely unpredictable. Well, she’s also a little scary. Her shift is some grade-A body horror, and the brutality on display would make Stephen King nod his head in approval. Djibril Morissette-Phan and K. Michael Russell excel at facial expressions that say more than words cannot, and they do blood and gore pretty darn well too. Everyone looks and feels human until they are not.

3. The Hunt

Written by: Colin Lorimer

Art by: Joana Lafuente

Publisher: Image

If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m a big fan of horror. I don’t like the gore-ridden, slasher kind though; if you want to keep me up at night, you need to give me terrifying ideas first and great characters second. The Hunt is both. The idea is that upsetting monsters that are well versed in magic is an awful, awful thing to do, and the character is Orla, a high-school girl who knows just enough magic to think she’s in control when she very clearly is not. The rest is a kaleidoscope of Irish mythology, changlings, threats of damnation, and a small beastery of monsters. The artwork here is never short of phenomenal, so much so that I find myself going back and just flipping through the pages. The Hunt just might be the prettiest comic to come out of 2016.

2. Black Hammer

Written by: Jeff Lemire

Art by: Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart

Publisher: Dark Horse

As someone that isn’t well-versed in super hero comics, it’s impossible for me to talk about the structuralism of Black Hammer, which is one of its biggest selling points. Intellectually, I know know what it’s doing, but I don’t have the experience to really appreciate it. Yet as an average fan of comics–and someone who has a strong dislike of superhero comics–I find Black Hammer to be astounding in its execution and scope. Jeff Lemire is a wonder at characters and voice, and superhero status or no, it’s the characters that sell this series. From their motives to their flaws to their backstories, each one feels ridiculously real, like they’ve been around for twenty or more issues and not six. The writing is truly exceptional. Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart match the tone and characters perfectly as artists, and while Black Hammer is never pretty to look at, it’s interesting and fits the writing.

1. Black Monday Murders

Written by: Jonathon Hickman

Art by: Tomm Coker & Michael Garland

Publisher: Image Comics

Black Monday Murders is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in the last five years, and I make it a habit to read a lot. It’s a crime story, one with a detective trying to solve a murder, yet it’s also a story of cults, satanism, magic, money, bankers, economics, and perhaps immortality too. Everything about it is strange in the best way possible. Each issue is oversized and paced with brutal perfection, because Jonathan Hickman is a genius and he knows what it takes to tell a good story. He also knows that telling a good story sometimes means breaking rules. Black Monday Murders is not afraid to end a scene with a series of blank pages, and it isn’t afraid to use outright prose either. A character might die on page ten, and on page eleven there’s a confidential dossier with half of its words redacted out. The two are related, and it’s up to you to figure out how. Tomm Coker and Michael Garland match Hickman’s written precision with their artwork. The book is gorgeous, and like Black Hammer, the artwork fits the tone, characters, and style perfectly. It’s rare to find a team that so clearly play off of each others strengths, but every scene is better for it.

Underworld: Blood Wars Review

The first movie I ever watched with my still-best friend (hi Travis!) was Underworld. This was back in 2003 when we were both freshman in high school and, by all accounts, a pair of immature idiots. Werewolves fighting vampires? Hell yes. When Underworld: Evolution came out three years later, it became a three-city spanning pilgrimage to find a theater that would let our underage selves in.

We did, by the way. We had to drive almost an hour away, but we found a place that would let us in.

Each new sequel saw us in the theater day one, ready to watch Kate Beckinsale as Selene destroy werewolves, humans, and vampires in showers of blood and gore, and after each film we would leave going, “That was the best movie ever made!” for a full two hours before reality set in. Alcohol was always involved.

Underworld: Blood Wars broke the tradition. Travis is now stationed in Louisiana, and I’m…well, an adult. My tastes have changed. My standards have gotten higher, and I’ve been sober all day. But I’ll be damned—and I type this with a grin—I still hold the same adoration for this series that I did when I was a freshman in high school.

I was unironically and very legitimately excited to see this movie.

Our quick plot summary is this: The werewolves have once again regrouped and are hoping to wipe the vampires out for good. They’re after Selene’s daughter, Eve because her hybrid blood will grant them superpowers, and they need Selene to get to her. The vampires, meanwhile, are after Selene for a handful of reasons, half of which aren’t in her favor because she has a pretty turbulent past with other vampires.

Queue chase sequences, backstabbing, and a heaping pile of violence.

As a fifth installment, Underworld: Blood Wars has a large amount of continuity and lore to work with. This works both in its favor and in its detriment, though perhaps more to the latter than the former. Michael is still gone, and Selene’s daughter Eve is as well. The movie has to jump through a handful of hard-to-buy plot loops to make this work, especially since everyone is after both characters. It’s a grail quest with no grail at the end.

But more than that, the movie really does cherry pick what it wants to keep and what it wants to ignore. Plot points from Underworld: Awakening are brought up, yet the elephant in the room is not. What of the human purge on all vampire and werewolf kind? We went from underground covens and near extinction to gothic mansions and gross levels of wealth seemingly overnight, and that just doesn’t make any sense.

Selene too has gone through some major character development off screen. She’s so gung-ho about killing werewolves in all the other movies that it borderlines on psychopathy, but we start Blood Wars with her sick of violence and sick of living too. That’s a big character change, and one I’d have liked to see. It’s not that I don’t buy it either, but I have a feeling that that journey was more interesting than the one presented in this movie.

Meanwhile, the vampires and werewolves are still at war with each other, and at this point I can only wonder why. Victor is dead. Marcus is dead. Lucian is dead. The key people who started the war some fifteen hundred years ago are no longer around, and I’d say it’s time to let bygones be bygones. There’s no reason to continue fighting other than tradition and spite.

Underworld: Blood Wars isn’t interested in moving on though. It isn’t interested in introspection, either. It has the word “war” in its title, and plot progression and character development be damned, it’s going to deliver on that.

It does.

Similar to Evolution and Awakening, Blood Wars is using its plot as a justification for action. There are a lot of characters at play here (and more moving parts than any of the previous movies), but it’s all to arrive at bloodshed. Our new vampires are taken right out of the first movie, with their snooty politics and plays at power, while our new werewolves are of the Awakening variety: smarter, bigger, and seemingly endless. It’s not a particularly new combination of ingredients, but it’s still fun all the same. The series knows what does and doesn’t work.

As far as new characters go, they’re about what you’d expect from an Underworld movie. Other than Selene and David, we aren’t really supposed to like or sympathize with any of the vampires, and other than Marius, none of the werewolves are even named.

It’s a funny thing, really. Underworld has always played both sides as flawed and at fault, but other than Rise of the Lycans, the movies break their backs to make the vampires out to be the good guys. If I sympathize with zero of our new vampire cast and also know that once upon a time, they kept all the werewolves in thrall, why should I want them to win?

Because at this point, not even Selene cares who wins or loses.

This reduces Blood Wars to a war movie of fodder fighting fodder with Selene and David along for the ride. The thing is, I don’t really know if this is a flaw or not. I’m only here for Selene, David, and our third character, violence. All three deliver.

It’s Selene’s endless supply of bullets; it’s Marius throwing vampires through walls; and it’s David’s blood-drenched sword that brought me back to my freshman self. The fight sequences here are many, and all of them are damn fun. Both of Selene’s bouts with Marius alone made the ticket price worthwhile, and hell, Marius and David shooting four clips into each other only to sweat the bullets out seconds later did too.

It’s not intellectually stimulating by any means, but it is fucking awesome and that has to count for something.

To the movie’s credit, it does expand upon the Underworld lore. There’s a new faction of vampires introduced around the middle of the flick, and they bring with them some light fantasy elements that really do add to the overall package. They also raise some interesting questions about death and the afterlife, which is more thoughtful than this series has ever gone. Of course, they also provide a ton more fodder for the inevitable werewolf invasion, which is, let’s face it, their primary purpose. It’s a war, remember?

Evenso, Blood Wars is a movie that I can confidently say gets better as it goes. The stakes don’t ever get any higher, but the battles and world both get bigger. Like I said, the series knows what does and doesn’t work.

And I have to give some mad respect for the sound engineers behind this movie. Everything sounds great, from the very loud, very punchy bullets to the numerous amounts of skin ripping. Everything feels so visceral and meaty, like in Gears of War 2 when you have to chop apart that giant worm from the inside. Each kill is so satisfying.

I hate to be that guy that gives a stupid movie a pass because it’s fun, but really, if you’re going to see an Underworld movie, your expectations are already set. I was excited for this movie because I was excited for more Underworld, and Underworld: Blood Wars is just that, only a bit bigger and flashier for the effort.

I had a blast.

My Top Ten Albums of 2016

Well, 2016 has been a year. I’ll avoid the stuff Charlie Brown’s Linus van Pelt says not to talk about and jump into music, because politics aside, it’s been a crazy year for music. I discovered so many bands! Veldes, Avantasia, Shadow of Intent, Moonsorrow, Septic Flesh, Lamb of God, Soar, Dissection, Delain, Sonata Artica, The Wagaki Band, Chthonic…the list could probably go on. Some of my most-anticipated albums came out this year, and some of them were amazing! Some were also not amazing.

2016 strikes in more than one way.

Concert wise, I’ve seen four of my five favorite bands live: Nightwish, Five Finger Death Punch, Shinedown, and Bobaflex. I also got to see Deff Leppard, Delain, Sonata Artica, Hed P.E. Powerman 5000, REO Speedwagon, Sixx. a.m. Slipknot, Disturbed, Beartooth, Nothing More, Another Lost Year, and a darn good few others that I can’t recall off the top of my head.

In that respect, 2016 couldn’t bring me down at all. Do you know how crazy Slipknot were live? Like, all of the crazy!

So let’s stick with positivity and jump into my top-ten albums of 2016! This list is…well, it’s a list!
kornserenitycdcover

10 Korn — The Serenity of Suffering

Genre: Nu Metal

Perhaps the craziest thing about 2016 is that it got me excited for a new Korn album. Do you know how long it’s been since that happened? Like a decade! But I’m an adult that isn’t in middle school, and Goddamn, Korn put out an album that’s awesome. It’s got everything I want from them, from the scat singing to the crunchy riffage to the angsty lyrics.

It appeals to me on so many nostalgic levels, yet it’s also just good. It’s catchy as all hell, catchy as all hell, and also catchy as all hell. Also, it’s Korn without the electronic gimmicks from their last few efforts. That means…that means so much. You have no idea.

Standout tracks are “Rotting in Vain,” “When You’re Not There,” and “Everything Falls Apart.”

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09 Amaranthe – Maximalism

Genre: ???

Amaranthe are a band I discovered early in 2015 and fell in love with because they’re a strange mess of noise. They have three vocalist: A pop singer, a rock singer, and a metal growler, and they mix pop-rock with straight metal. I don’t know what they are, but I love their sound. It’s different. It’s everything I want in music, really.

Their new effort is more of the same in that regard, with huge pop songs that pack on the metal grit. It’s a sing-along affair that turns into a scream-along, and you don’t really know where one part begins and another ends. It might also get you dancing and headbanging at the same time. It’s not every day an album will get both of those things out of me.

Not that I should dance. I suck at dancing.

Standout tracks are “Boomerang,” “On the Rocks,” and “Limitless.”

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08 All Hail the Yeti – Screams from a Black Wilderness

Genre: Death Metal…?

All Hail the Yeti are the only band I know that can do horror lyrics and not sound like cartoons. Cannibal Corpse and Infant Annihilator bring on the gore, yet they do so with a cheesy shine that kind of hurts the overall package. Yeti? They’ll do up death, torture, and the apocalypse with the brutal salesmanship of a person promising a cure to cancer yet giving you snake oil.

Screams from a Black Wilderness is their sophomore effort, and in that respect, is much more refined than their former. That’s neither a condemnation nor a praise; just a fact. It flows better, and it has a hair less grit than their self-titled, yet it also packs one hellova punch. The songs are driving forces, the kind that make you want to go fight someone because anger is anger and you’re angry! They make you want to chant and scream too, because all good music makes you want to do those things, and this is good music.

Standout tracks include, “Witch is Dead,” “Before the Flames,” and “Daughter of the Morning Star.”

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07 Thomas Rakowitz – The Musings of Balance

Genre: Hard Rock

Full discolor: Thomas Rakowtiz is a good friend of mine. Full disclosure: The Musings of Balance is a killer record.

The Musings of Balance probably has my favorite guitar work of any album released in 2016. Every track is different and flavorful, yet every track has that brutal riffage that you want from this brand of hard rock. It makes you want to mosh like a crazy person, and it makes you want to sing along while you do so. The vocal melodies are catchy!

Thomas mixes clean singing with death growls like a pro, and he layers them over just the best guitar work. It’s insane. Lyrically, he knows how to channel the things that keep him up at night, both good and bad. Musically, well musically it’s a bit of everything. There’s a goddamn bull-fighting song on this thing! Color it surprising, and use a black marker while you do so.

Standout tracks are “The End of it All,” “Frantic,” and “The Illusion.”

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06 Six a.m. – Prayers for the Damned

Genre: Rock

This isn’t the first time Six a.m. have made my top-ten list, and given their track record, it won’t be the last. They do rock like rock needs to be done: catchy, hard, and awesome. Prayers for the Damned is a harder version of their sound, bringing the big guitars and the fast vocals without any letup. There are no ballads here.

It’s awesome.

The album does get some bonus points for their live performance, which was killer as all hell, but really, if you’re into rock, this is the prime example of it. It’s got just a bit of classic flair to entice all walks of life, but the gut-punch we all want and need from new-timey music.

And I dare you to try and not sing along while this album is going. Try. Just try. You’ll fail as miserably as I do, because I suck at singing and shouldn’t try at all. This album gets me to try though, and it’s always a blast.

Standout tracks are “Belly of the Beast,” “When We Were Gods,” and “Can’t Stop.”

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05 Delain – Moonbathers

Genre: Symphonic Metal

So I’m basically going to jump for joy if you’re either symphonic metal or folk metal, and this is the former. Happy day there, because Nightwish need to have some supplements for the years they don’t release an album. Queue Delain!

Delain are some prime-time symphonic metal, yet they have some subtle twists. I find that Moonbathers comes and goes when it comes to the symphony; it’s either very prominent or in the background. When it’s prominent, it’s the swelling sound we all hope and want, yet when it’s in the background, well, that’s when the guitars and drums just explode.

Mix that with some amazing vocals and even more amazing vocal melodies, and you have an album that I have not been able to stop listening to. Bonus points for Delain being phenomenal live. And they were an opening band! How the hell were they an opening band? They make most closing acts look like chump change.

Standout tracks are “Hands of Gold,” “The Glory and the Scum,” and “Dance Macabre.”

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04 Gorjia – Magma

Genre: Death Metal

I’m tempted to just write, “It’s Gojira and Gojira can do no wrong,” because that’s probably the truest thing that’s been said this year. However, Gojira didn’t just do no wrong here; they did amazing. Magma is the only death metal album I’d call gorgeous. Seriously, this is pretty death metal! How is that even possible?

Magma is when you take pure, pure sorrow and put it to music. It’s when you take the frustration of death and just yell at it, yet it’s also what you do when you’re done yelling. There are real moments of contemplation here, of deep introspection on life and loss. It’s brilliant.

It’s also an album that takes the band away from their norm with quite a bit of clean vocals. Yeah. Gojira with clean vocals. Holy hell. Yet they work! At first they seem monotonous, almost in the background, yet the more you listen, the more they jive perfectly with what the record wants. They’re this sad, pretty drone, and they make this album something special.

Standout tracks are “Low Lands,” “Stranded,” and “Silvera.”

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03 Moonsorrow – Jumalten Aika

Genre: Black Metal

Perhaps my favorite thing about 2016 is that it taught me that black metal can be amazing. At one point I wrote the genre off, and then Moonsorrow came along and slapped me upside the head with a gorgeous, atmospheric, and heavy album about gods and man.

It’s also in Finnish.

Juamlen Aika is one of two 2016 albums I’d call epic. Of the five tracks, four are over ten minutes long and two boarder on fifteen minutes. The whole package is a bit over an hour, yet the variety here is off the charts. The songs move in this glorious, unpredictable way, going from heavy riffs to soft keyboards and other classical instruments. The album keeps you on your toes in this tense way, yet it also asks you to relax, to sit back and enjoy.

Lyrically, the album is awesome (assuming you’re willing to check the booklet. The whole thing is in Finnish, but that really only adds to it. The vocals become another instrument, a distorted wail that sucks you in and doesn’t let you go at all. It’s so awesome!)

Standout tracks are “Jumaltin Aika,” “Ihmisen Aika,” and “Ruttoleto sis. Paivattoman Paivan Kansa.”

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02 Avantasia – Ghostlights

Genre: Power Metal

Ghostlights came out sometime in January and remained my favorite album for most of the year. It’s a massive concept album about a guy journeying into the afterlife and finding God, and it’s nothing short of amazing. I cannot get over how phenomenal the guitar work is here, and I cannot get over how just…epic this piece is! Every song has at least one guest vocalist because Avantasia isn’t a band; it’s an event.

It’s also the pinnacle of power metal.

This isn’t cheesy stuff, and this isn’t repetitive riffage. It’s plain glory from start to finish, the kind of songs I want to belt out but cannot because my range is like three and a half notes. It’s smart and awesome and will not leave your head until you hit the repeat button in a failed attempt at purging such amazing notes. Even then, you might as well toss a coin, because you’re probably screwed.

You cannot make music this awesome go away! And you shouldn’t want to either!

Standout tracks include “Master of the Pendulum,” “Ghostlights,” and “Draconian Love.”

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01 Sully Erna – Hometown Life

Genre: ???

Back in 2014 when I did my first top-ten music list, I said that I was a massive fanboy of Godsmack. That fanboyism includes their front man, Sully Erna. I kind of want to marry his voice.

Avalon was my favorite album for a good many years until I discovered Wintersun, and even then, it still remains my second favorite album. It’s goddamn perfection, and as luck would have it, so is Hometown Life. Blending five or six different genres—including jazz!—Hometown Life is half a love-letter to music and half a love-letter to personal triumphs and failures.

It’s such an interesting album to listen to, because on one hand it’s a biography of Sully Erna himself, on another it’s a message to his children, and on a third (because this monster has three hands) it’s open to interpretation. As an English major, it’s basically a wet dream I can throw into my ears.

Wow. That sounded strange.

What doesn’t sound strange is this album though (saved!). It’s a little bit country, a little bit alternative, a little bit jazz, a little bit soul, a little bit rock, and a little bit tribal. It might have bits and pieces of other genres too, because it’s just that kind of record. Sometimes Sully has half a symphony behind him, and sometimes he’s playing a piano. Sometimes that happens in the same song.

And all the while, it’s mixed wonderfully, vocally impressive, and makes you want to weep or dance.

Standout tracks are “Your Own Drum,” “Turn it Up,” and “Forever my Infinity.”

We Are the Ocean Born

Hey, have some more Vitrerran music why don’tcha!

So, this song is the main theme for The Scarfoam Coast, or our water area. I was trying to channel my inner Alestorm, and while I probably missed that mark by a wide margin, I am happy with what I got going here. This song was super fun to make!

What sets this one apart, I guess, is that it uses a new plugin called Sakura. Well, not “new” to the world but new to Dual Wield Software. It came with some awesome strings, including the violin and guitars you here in this song. I finally have an upright bass, guys. You have no idea how happy that makes me. Got a wicked nice harp too.

Pretty sure the Greyjoys liked to go “we are the iron born,” so that’s where the title is coming from. I’m finding it harder to pun off of A Song of Ice and Fire things as I make more tunes. I haven’t read the books in a very long time.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

2016 has been what I’d call a messy year, but at least we’re getting more Harry Potter. If there’s a consolation prize to be had, it’s that. However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t Harry Potter. It’s its own thing, and we all knew that going in, even if we hoped otherwise. It’s a strange kind of disappointment, because it’s our own fault even if we don’t want to admit it.

Or I’m massively projecting. Either way, the movie is pretty good, but you know, not amazing because it isn’t Harry Potter.

I’ve seen Fantastic Beasts’ plot broken down into a comparison of Dr. Who and Pokemon; however, I don’t really agree. There are some beasts that need finding, but five is a far cry from 150. Fantastic Beasts is far more concerned with world building. America’s wizarding world has its own rules, Aurors, president, and a mounting tension between wizards and Muggles. It doesn’t help that the threat of Grindelwald is looming heavy over everything. In many respects, Newt Scamander and his beasts are simply along for the ride.

Fantastic Beasts is a movie that tries to do too much with too little time. There’s a reason fantasy works better in novel formats: The world building requires pages of space to work with. Hogwarts took thick books to feel real, and New York’s wizarding world feels like it needs the same treatment. Sadly, it doesn’t get pages but a few hours of our time, and that time is heavily split between America, Newt, and a few minor subplots involving a crazy, abusive orphanage of sorts. We can’t have a Harry Potter anything without some child abuse!

Other than the child abuse subplot–which, if nothing else, turns into some cool world building/lore–the two big story elements could be the main focus of the movie with nothing lost. A razor-sharp look at Newt and his animals would have made for an amazing ride of whimsy and awe while a movie about the American wizarding world by itself could have been a breathtaking journey into a new world that’s both familiar and not.

Instead we get both, and the movie  is a bit muddled for it. Thankfully, it isn’t muddled in the same way Warcraft is; I’ve come away here wanting more, not less, but it still detracts some. Had this story been a book, we could have easily had both plots and then some. In a way, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of a traditional Harry Potter flick: absolutely serviceable and fun but with a few too many cuts to feel like that 100% adaptation I want.

And for a movie titled Fantastic Beasts, they really do get waysided. The ones we do see are great, but most show up once as spectacle only to never return. The few that return do so in a Batman-styled utility belt kind of way, “Well this monster can do this to save us from this jam,” before going back to the belt.

It’s not like this is a bad thing though. It’s the beasts themselves that provide the most whimsy and potential for jaw-drops, and each is stunning in its own right. Seeing them move and interact with Newt really made this movie feel like a piece of the Harry Potter world, but a movie titled fantastic beasts should have more focus on them.

Once again, too much to do in not enough space.

If there is another problem, it’s Newt Scamader himself. As a character, he’s more quirks than actual development, making him entertaining for the first leg of the movie and somewhat boring by the end. He’s the guy that likes animals more than people, but we’re never given any reason as to why. There are hints, but without some solid background information, he’s just an eccentric in an eccentric world.

Meanwhile, we have terrorism, child abuse, shady politics, and the threat of open war between wizards and Muggles going on, and I’ll be damned, that seems more interesting.

Thankfully Newt’s two cohorts are far more worthwhile. Jacob Kowalski is a Muggle who bumps into Newt and makes the classic briefcase swap. When animals escape and start rampaging, Jacob gets wrapped up into the wizarding world. He acts as the perfect viewer cipher, going from bewildered and unsure to absolutely delighted. My reactions were pretty much on point with his from start to finish.

But the best part about Jacob is that he’s given very relatable fears and goals. While Newt is stuck in animal wonderland, Jacob wants to open a bakery because he hates working at a canning factory. That’s it. It’s that simple, and it’s in that simplicity that makes Jacob an amazing character to follow. I cared about him throughout the flick, because I sympathized with him. He makes sense.

He’s also completely adorable.

Tina Goldstein is our third hero, a down-on-her-luck Auror who is trying to make up for some past mistakes. Like Jacob, she’s not terribly complicated, and like Jacob, that works in her favor. She really just wants her job back and the respect that comes with it, and what starts as a simple arrest turns into a complete disaster for her and the rest of New York.

Fantastic Beasts falls into an interesting area because Hogwarts is half a world away and all of the characters are adults. The movie is also a few decades in the past, taking place long before Harry Potter was ever born. Yet we aren’t looking at a prequel but a compendium to the wizarding world as a whole, a piece of world building, but for the wrong continent. This is the story of the author of one textbook used for one semester in Hogwarts.

None of that is bad. Hell, in a way it’s all for the best. We all know what happened when Star Wars was given its direct prequels, and we’re all still actively trying to forget those movies. I’d be upset if Rowling approached Harry Potter in a way that was directly tied to Harry because his story is over. It’s fine to let a franchise end where it’s supposed to. It’s why I haven’t picked up The Cursed Child and have no intention of doing so.

That being said, I suppose now that I have my cake, I want to eat it too. My favorite parts of this movie were the nods to the main series as a whole, such as the namedrop of Hogwarts, Newt’s use of the word, “Muggle,” and of course, Grindelwald as the big menace hiding in the background. Let’s be frank here: We all know why we’re going to go see this movie, regardless of reviews or expectations.

It’s more Harry Potter… even if it isn’t.

On Writing My Third Novel

Back in August, I wrote a short essay titled, “Permission to Fail,” where I vented about writing and editing my second novel which concluded with me hinting at starting a third novel. I then went on a 100-day break of no blog posts.

Gee, I wonder what I was doing!

I finished the first draft of Toyland sometime last week. It measures almost 75,000 words and, as far as first drafts go, is a complete mess. Good god the amount of work I’ll have to put into this thing to get it into shape is staggering. Continuity errors, continuity errors everywhere! Not to mention the slipups in writing, the overly-long action sequences that are hard to follow, and the immature level of cursing that goes on.

Seriously. I think I drop over a 100 fuck bombs in this one. I haven’t counted yet because I’m afraid to.

Before I continue, here’s a quick-and-dirty plot summary of Toyland:

BP6 is the sixth pawn in the black kingdom. He’s a chess piece, and he hates being a chess piece. It’s a pretty shitty gig, so he spends his free time snorting sugar, drinking soda, and sexually harassing Darbie Dolls as a way to forget how much he hates himself. Things change when he drunkenly sneaks into a G.I. base and steals a top-secret weapon that’s actually just a lighter.

BP6 takes this weapon back to his kingdom, lights everyone he hates on fire, and then proceeds to go on a drunken rampage through Toyland. His long-time friend John (G.I. John instead of G.I. Joe because trademarks) is after him, but it doesn’t take long for half of Toyland to join in the hunt. This is a weapon that works!

The novel itself is one parts action, one parts dark comedy, and maybe six parts existential angst. Much like Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story movie, all of the toys in Toyland think they are real save BP6. BP6, however, is ill equipped to handle the realization that he’s not real, so he turns to violence and drugs.If he isn’t real, then neither is anyone else and who cares who dies?

It’s a strange, strange novel.

The ideas behind Toyland are old. I created the basic premise somewhere around 2011 when I was working a job I loathed and wished I could burn the place to the ground. I felt like a pawn. It was then that I wrote the first line to the novel, one I’ve been carrying around for five years:

The plastic man in army fatigues walked through the cardboard castle.

See, BP6 isn’t really the main character, his friend John is. John’s the one who has to come to terms with the fact that his best friend is a monster, that the army he trusts keeps dark secrets, and that Toyland isn’t what he’s been lead to believe it is. There are monsters out there.

Or that was the idea. As it turned out, there are four main characters in this novel: BP6, John, Frank (he’s a Viper Commando), and White Knight 2.

This was a delightful surprise at first. The best part about writing is the discovery; however, the worst part about writing is the discovery. I wrote myself into more complex situations than a dumb book about a pissed off talking toy really needs, and juggling multiple characters isn’t exactly easy. I don’t know how George R. R. Martin does it.

Each character winds up meeting more characters as the story goes on, so what started with four people wound up turning into over 20. John has three squadmates, Frank has three squadmates, and both BP6 and WK2 find all sorts of crazy folk on the floor of Toyland. Then there are the main villains, a Mega Brick Kingpin that I based off of Samuel L Jackson, a depressed underground railroad train that was built under the ground and can’t escape, and a pet lizard that showed up out of goddamned nowhere. Seriously Casey, why?

There are characters I created to move the plot along assuming they’d offer some exposition or direction that wound up living all the way to the end. Because writing is about discovery, and that’s a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t kind of game.

It was fun though. My biggest worry about writing is that it’ll turn into a chore, that I’ll get used to it and start going through the motions. This book though, this book was damn fun to write. I got to create the most bizarre, stupid world of my writing life thus far, and that’s saying something as I’ve written high fantasy.

I have fight sequences where transforming robots are trying to take a water fountain so they can steal water balloons, and I have another fight sequences that takes place inside a giant Mega Brick city. Think The Lego Movie but with more dismemberment and swearing.

Almost all the characters are out of their minds in some way, too.

If I learned anything, it’s that the reasons I enjoy writing haven’t changed. Discovery is fun, and outlining ruins that. I did almost zero planning for this book, and yeah it threw me into some really hard directions to work with, but it was always fun. I’ll fix the problems later.

I also learned that keeping a sheet of notes as you go is as necessary as ever, even if I once again didn’t do that. Old habits die hard. Less also continues to be more, adverbials are still the devil, and describing a stuffed animal burning to death is a lot harder than it sounds.

Toyland did mark the first book that I shopped ideas with a writing circle. I’ve stumbled upon a few places via Facebook and Neogaf this year, and they really proved their worth. I never asked for feedback on wording, paragraphs, or chapters, but going, “Hey what if” wound up being super valuable.

Corners are easier to navigate out of when you have outside perspective.

I don’t know what will happen with this book when it’s done. I also don’t know if this blog post has any value other than my own self wanking. Regardless, I hope there’s entertainment to be found somewhere, because while fun is the first rule, I try to make entertainment the second. I’ve read too many bad books to not want to at least be entertaining.